MONROVIA, Liberia (AP) — Liberian President George Weah is seeking a second term in office Tuesday, hoping that his efforts to pave roads, build hospitals and bring electricity to more areas will win votes despite growing economic hardships in the West African nation.
He faces a crowded field of 19 challengers, led by his main rival from the last election in 2017, Joseph Boakai, who served as vice president under Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first democratically elected female leader.
Weah, 57, a former international soccer star, cast his ballot with his wife and son at an elementary school in Paynesville city.
“Liberians are exercising their democracy rights. … It is the Liberian people’s election and they will decide who becomes their president,” he said.
Boakai has campaigned on promises to rescue Liberia from what he calls Weah’s failed leadership, dubbing himself and his running mate “Rescue 1” and “Rescue 2.”
“We are all excited and optimistic about what is now a national call to rally citizens of this great country for a rescue mission to reverse the hardships so many Liberians and their families have been subjected to,” Boakai said during a recent stop at the Antoinette Tubman Stadium.
Weah has been accused of not living up to key campaign promises that he would fight corruption and ensure justice for victims of the country’s brutal back-to-back civil wars that killed an estimated 250,000 people between 1989 and 2003.
He obtained 61.5% of the total votes cast in 2017, while Boakai received 38.5% though it remains to be seen whether the incumbent can coast to a similar victory this time. Liberia’s 2.47 million eligible voters are also casting ballots for legislative elections Tuesday.
“Weah’s political position going into the vote is not assessed as being stronger than it was in 2017, given the mixed performance during his first tenure,” said Zoe McCathie, a political and security analyst at Africa-focused Signal Risk Consulting. “While some policies such as free higher education for public universities have proven popular, Weah has largely failed to effectively combat corruption and improve the economy, as he had promised when first elected, causing some support to wane.”
Already election-related violence has claimed two lives in Foya, located in Lofa county. Ruling party and opposition candidates have blamed each other for the Sept. 29 clashes.
Liberia began as a settlement for freed slaves from the United States in 1822, but declared itself an independent nation 25 years later. Liberia’s flag, constitution, form of government and many laws are modeled on those of the U.S. The capital is named in honor of America’s fifth president, James Monroe, who was in power when the freed slaves were repatriated.
Weah rode into power six years ago in the first democratic transfer of power in the West African nation since the end of the civil wars amid high hopes brought by his promise to fight poverty and stir infrastructural development in Africa’s oldest republic. His goal, he had said in 2017, was to push Liberia from a low-income country to a middle-income one.
But his government is perceived by many to have performed below expectations, especially in the management of the economy, which contracted in two of the six years he has been in office, with the rate of economic growth in decline since 2021.
It’s been “turmoil”, to create business, said Seah J. Trustmo, a voter. “It has been hard, very, very hard,” she said.
Corruption continues to stifle Liberia’s growth and many people will look to use the vote to show their concerns, analysts say. Research network Afrobarometer’s 2023 surveys found that large numbers of Liberians say corruption in the country has increased during the past year and the government is doing a poor job of fighting it.
In a country where at least one in two citizens are in poverty according to multiple measures, Weah faces accusations of mismanaging government funds. Between November and December last year, he was out of the country for seven weeks touring several countries, including Qatar where he watched his son play in the U.S. football team at the World Cup.
Protests have also been rampant under Weah and analysts have raised concerns about the likelihood of another round of demonstrations if the electoral process is flawed. While the campaigns have been largely peaceful, there have been pockets of violence — including this week when violent clashes between opposition and ruling parties’ supporters marred the close of Weah’s campaign rally.
“This popular dissatisfaction (of the government’s performance) will likely be utilized by opposition parties to renew demonstrations in the event of a victory for Weah,” Signal Risk’s McCathie said, before pointing out that political violence following the election is, however, unlikely to pose any risk to Liberia’s political stability.
Weah is still the only African to have won the Ballon d’Or. He played as a forward for Paris Saint-Germain, AC Milan, Chelsea and Manchester City during an 18-year club career. His final appearance for Liberia was in September 2018 when he made a surprise appearance in an exhibition game against Nigeria at the age of 51, a year after he’d been elected president. His 23-year-old son, Tim, now plays for Serie A club Juventus and the U.S. national team.
Asadu reported from Lagos, Nigeria. Associated Press writer Krista Larson in Dakar, Senegal, contributed.